With skiing gradually becoming a popular sport and luxury event amongst Indians, people are flocking to hill stations craving to experience the joy of skiing as an adventurous and recreational activity, while soaking in the natural beauty.
On January 10 this year, Aanchal Thakur, a 21-year old from Barua, a small village off the Manali district in the state of Himachal Pradesh in north India, won India’s first international medal in skiing – a bronze in Federation Internationale de Ski (FIS), the International Skiing Competition held in Turkey.
From originating as a mode of transportation over mountain peaks about eight millennia ago, to being a competitive Olympic sport, and further developing as a tourist recreational activity, skiing has a very interesting history of evolution. Even though there is no dearth of snow laden slopes in India with the great Himalayas fringing the nation’s northern boundary, there however is a dearth of ski resorts. Administered by the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, some skiing destinations lie across portions of the states of Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. Poor connectivity, security concerns, lack of equipment and infrastructure, stand in the way of winter activities like skiing to emerge as a sport and tourism lure for mountain destinations in India.
The Perfect Slope: Gulmarg
When the snow falls, tender snowflakes caress your cheeks as you gaze up at the clouded sky. Come the season of winter, snow blankets over the country’s higher altitude regions. One such picturesque delight is Gulmarg, which resides in the Baramula district of the northern-most state of Jammu & Kashmir. The name translates to ‘the meadow of flowers’, a tribute to the growth of wild flowers such as daisies, forget-me-nots and buttercups in its spring and summer landscape.
Located in the Pir Panjal Range of the western Himalayas, Gulmarg has developed as a world-class ski destination for tourists, and has emerged as the heartland of winter sports in India. Skiing, tobogganing, snowboarding and heliskiing takes place on the slopes of Mount Apharwat, a peak at an altitude of 13,780 feet.
You can look down upon valleys, slopes and fir and pine trees caked with white snow while sitting in the world’s second highest operating cable car – the Gulmarg Gondola cable transport, which covers a distance of 1,601 metres to reach the Kongdoori Mountain from Gulmarg. Kongdoori Mountain is a shoulder of the Mount Apharwat.
A number of comfortable options are available for lodging and dining in the area. The Khyber, a resort and spa, has the Gondola ski lift at a minute’s distance from its porch, making it a ski-in-ski-out resort. Other affordable resorts also provide good accommodation, while the Indian Institute of Skiing and Mountaineering in Gulmarg provides certified instructors, ski equipment and the apparel appropriate for the climate.
An engineering student doing his bachelor’s degree, Sidharth Tiwari says, “I visited Gulmarg in February 2017 with my family to ski over snowy slopes and was enraptured by the vivid landscape. The experience of skiing was thrilling with the cold winds rushing past as I did my glides. My sister and I made a snowman and a number of snow angels on the Kongdoori Mountain. We also visited the famous Baba Reshi shrine to offer prayers to the local deity. The entire experience was really wonderful, almost like a fantasy.”
Heli-skiing, an off-trail downhill skiing or snowboarding that is accessible by a helicopter, as opposed to a ski lift, is gaining popularity and is offered by selective operators in both Gulmarg and Manali in Himachal Pradesh (north India). Another eccentric format is Yak skiing, where a Yak attracted by a bucket of pony nuts charges downhill and pulls the skier upward by means of the rope over a pulley. This format is being practiced as a tourism activity in Manali as well.
Prior to India’s independence, Gulmarg was a retreat in the summers for the British where they used to hunt and golf. At an altitude of 8,690 feet, it has the world’s highest green golf course, a spotless green field sprawling 7,505 yards. From May to October, tourists can rent golf sets and balls from the Tourism Department to play golf over the asymmetrical contours with 18 holes.
Apart from sports, the geography of Gulmarg is blessed with many other attractions as well. Sun rays glisten over the surface of the triangular Alpather Lake, which is surrounded by sierras and floral meadows during the summer season, posing as a photographic delight. It remains frozen till the month of May, owing to the low temperature and its high altitude, offering an excellent ground for ice-skating. The location of the lake is a 33km pony ride from the city of Gulmarg or via a hike perfect for the lovers of nature walks.
Also a site for ski runs, Khilanmarg, a small valley about a six kilometres ascent from the city, offers a fine view of the surrounding snow-covered peaks, Nanga Parbat and the twin 23,293 feet high peaks of Nun and Kun to the south-east, over the valley of Kashmir.
Sachita Gupta, a resident of Jammu says, “The landscape of Gulmarg is quite enticing, offering locations for panoramas of snow-laden mountains. Being a local, I have observed a sharp rise in the number of tourists, especially those who either want to learn how to ski, or desire activities for family recreation. People of every age group try gliding gracefully over the slopes of snow, often falling faceforward or on their butts, but always rising with a smile. Such is the beauty of snow.”
She also told India & You that, “The infamous danger of conflict between India and Pakistan often becomes a reason for discouraging tourism in the state, but in truth, the strong military presence around Gulmarg makes the destination no more risky than a trip to any other destination in India.”
To draw more adrenaline junkies to the place, the state’s police department had organised a snow car racing event on February 10, boosting snow tourism and also giving local lovers of four wheelers the opportunity to race on the snowy lanes of the hilly state.